LA JOLLA, Calif. -- A computer jockey named Michael Richards punches a keyboard to search a database of
chemicals kept at a biotechnology company here. With a few keystrokes, he calls up one of the more unusual
inventory lists in corporate America.
"Harsh but sweet, floral-hay odor; sweet cherry-berry taste," reads the entry for a chemical called
1-acetyl-4-methyl benzene. "Fruity, floral, weak, vanilla-like odor and taste," says another entry, for
The chemicals at Senomyx Inc. are part of new genetic research that is attempting to reeal the human senses
of taste and smell. The start-up company is one of several around the country that hope to use that knowledge
to come up with new flavors and fragrances that effectively create new foods and other products.
It's part of a new discipline that might be called "consumer genetics." There are plans to create seasonings
to make vegetables tastier to young children by blocking specific tastes that overwhelm their palates.
Some companies foresee additives that precisely mimic the taste and feel of rich foods without the fat, or
room deodorants that temporarily block the ability to perceive unwanted smells. Some are interested in developing
artificial sweeteners that can survive cooking, as some of today's popular ones cannot.
In the near term, scientists envision medicines, diet sodas and coffee that have no bitter taste because
they would contain compounds that momentarily block the tongue's perception of bitterness. The first product
from the industry might well be a cough syrup that babies can stand.
The scientists believe that they can eventually not only make ordinary products better but also -- starting
with compounds like those in the Senomyx stockroom -- use the tools of genetics to create smells and tastes
never before perceived by the human race.
Researchers predict a time when genetics can explain precisely why one steak tastes better than another, why
some people hate broccoli but others love it, and why most of humankind likes chocolate. They envision
a day, moreover, when those responses can be precisely manipulated by adding smells or tastes or suppressing
As word spreads of the potential of this work, start-up capital is flowing, and genetics companies that
previously focused entirely on disease are making deals to use their knowledge in service to the new field.
Some groups that monitor food safety worry that the discipline will spur greater industrialization of
agriculture and food production, separating consumers even further from food grown on real farms. And
they say new ingredients produced by molecular techniques will face major safety concerns.
Paul Grayson, chairman and chief executive of Senomyx, is optimistic that such concerns can be met. "We
want to make healthy food taste better or make good-tasting food healthier," he said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington publishes lists of food additives, deeming some
safe and desirable and advising people to avoid others. Its executive director, Michael Jacobson, said
he could see some potential benefits from the new technology, such as the ability to make more palatable milk
or meat substitutes, reducing the environmental impact of large-scale farming.
But he also expressed concern that, over time, the technology could harm people's diets.
"Companies love artificial flavors and colors because it's cheaper to add them than it is to add, say,
strawberry juice to soda pop," he said. "The additives are more economical than the real food, and they can
replace the real food. Many people's whole diets are made of fake foods. It seems like this would open up new
avenues to facilitate the production of these foods."
Research into food additives has been going on for decades. A vast industry located in factories along the New
Jersey Turnpike supplies flavor and odor ingredients by the ton to companies that make consumer goods.
The usual way of finding new ingredients often involves sophisticated chemistry in the early stages but then
runs into a roadblock. New compounds have to be screened by human panels. Hours of tasting or sniffing can
overwhelm the senses, and the panels can screen only so many compounds. Many of the additives begin as extracts
from plants or animals, and patenting them is difficult or impossible, limiting their profit potential.
The new gene-based companies are devising a much faster and potentially more effective and enticing way of approaching the
problem. As they learn the precise structure of proteins in the tongue or nose that detect taste and smell,
they can copy those proteins. The copies can be used to build robotic testing systems that can screen tens of
thousands of new chemical compounds a day. If a new compound binds tightly to taste or smell proteins, it's a
clue that the compound might elicit a strong sensory perception.
The system is similar to the screening methods that pharmaceutical companies use to find new drugs. Human taste
or smell panels would get involved only after much of the drudgery has been handled by machines, and only to
sample the most promising compounds. Because they can be created from scratch and not extracted from plants or
animals, such additives probably could be patented -- and sold at higher prices than traditional additives.
The most visible company in the field is Senomyx, which has raised about $33 million in start-up money, hired
70 employees, filed for an initial public offering of shares and secured control of an extensive set of patents.
Most notably, Senomyx has licensed patents believed to cover virtually all the human genes that permit
detection of bitter tastes and it has filed for patents on many of the hundreds of genes involved in smell.
Grayson, the Senomyx chief executive, said the company's research method will resemble that of a pharmaceutical
company, but product development should be far easier. Pharmaceutical companies must not only test their
products to ensure safety, they also must put them through lengthy trials to determine whether they are
effective. For Senomyx, once a compound passes safety tests, proving that it works should be a simple matter
of tasting or smelling it.
The company would make much of its money by collecting royalties on products whose sales increased with Senomyx
ingredients -- a radically different business model from that of the traditional flavor and fragrance companies.
The technology could, in principle, be used to alter the genetics of plants or animals to make them tastier.
But Grayson, noting the rising public concern about genetically modified food, said Senomyx does not plan to
do that. "We're not trying to replace food," he said, just create new ingredients to make existing food taste
The concept is unproven so far, but big consumer-product companies are interested. Senomyx has signed major
research deals with Kraft Foods Inc., the nation's largest packaged-food company, and with Campbell Soup Co.,
which owns such brands as Pepperidge Farm, Swanson and V8.
Other companies are also pursuing such research. A smaller company, Linguagen Corp. of Paramus, N.J., controls
key patents and is busy devising compounds, including a "bitter blocker." Smaller start-up companies are in the
Some huge consumer companies, notably Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati, have started genetics programs. P&G,
which sells $40 billion worth of consumer products every year, confirmed that it is buying gene-analysis
devices from a California company, Affymetrix Inc., but would not reveal the goals of its research except to
say they do not involve food or beverages. P&G sells many products that depend on odor ingredients.
One of the leading scientists in the field, and a founder of Senomyx, is Charles Zuker, a biologist at the
University of California. Many of the proteins that detect bitter tastes were discovered in his
laboratory, which licensed patents on them to Senomyx.
In an interview, Zuker expressed excitement about the potential of the field. "I hate drinking diet soda," he
said, welcoming the prospect of an additive that could block the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. But he also
noted that many foods and drinks are very complicated mixtures of chemicals that scientists won't be able to emulate with artificial ingredients anytime soon.
He seemed to derive some comfort from that fact.
"It's going to be a while," he said, "before you take a poor bottle of wine and turn it into a wonderful Petrus